What Really Matters – September 2, 2018

Mark 7:1-8, 21-23

We all know that there are good reasons for keeping our hands clean. With all the germs and diseases out there, we are all concerned about that. And that’s why the first thing all our preschool children do when they come in the morning is washing their hands. Knowing that we are all creatures of habit, our teachers try to develop a good habit. Believe it or not, this is my parents concern too. Yes, it was their concern about me 50 years ago. And, yes, it is STILL their concern.

As you know, they came to help my moving last year. During a meal one day, probably on a Communion Sunday, my mom told me that I should wear white gloves while I am serving the sacraments. I understood why she suggested that. In most Korean churches, every clergy puts on white gloves when they serve communion. Of course, my mother has become accustomed to it. In her eyes, I might be seen like the disciples who didn’t wash their hands before eating. What do you think, my friends, should I wear white gloves?

In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus had been engaging the Pharisees and Scribes in a conversation about tradition. They were upset because Jesus’ disciples didn’t observe the tradition of the elders. They were not keeping certain ceremonial laws. They were not observing the outward rituals which the Jews felt vitally important.

What is important to see here is that the followers of the Pharisaic tradition, by performing these external rites and acts, hoped to sanctify the common things of life, hoped to make holy the rather common act of eating. They wanted to add a religious dimension to everything they did, which – I think – is very good.

The devout Pharisees were perfectly sincere in their ritual washings. They were making the common holy. In fact, in our day and time, we try to do a version of the same thing when we pray before eating a meal. We pray that God will bless the food and we give thanks for the food we are about to partake. We believe prayer should undergird everything we do in life and so we pray before civic events as well. Many of us pray before sports events, believing that everything we do is somehow within the realm of God’s mercy and guidance. The most common and ordinary things we do can be set apart as events made holy by God.

But the problem was that the Pharisees have concentrated so much on these external measures of religious practice that the internal marks of faith are forgotten, or worse yet, conveniently avoided. There are plenty of outward signs of religion that might look holy and well-meaning, but the inward marks of faith are more important and essential. Unfortunately, too often, we see the outward signs from the Pharisees, but we don’t see the inward signs of faith.

So, after condemning them for their hypocrisy, Jesus spoke directly to the issue of external trivialities. “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” Jesus rejected external trivialities, but he pointed us clearly to the internal realities which make us the person we are. And our Lord believed that this is how God sees a person. That’s why he could be so free from this religious hypocrisy…, the Pharisees’ externally obsessed religious practice.

In turn, this freedom of Jesus troubled the Pharisees so much. They found him to be blatantly disregarding the tradition of the elders. He ate with outcasts, with unclean people. He plucked grain on the Sabbath. He ate without washing his hands. But, ironically, it was also the freedom of Jesus that drew people to him. He was free not to be scared of society or of his enemies but to speak truth to them in love. It was the freedom of Jesus that enabled him to accept those who were different: the outcasts, the unclean. Come to think of it, it is also freedom that allows us to look at ourselves honestly and to see…, yes, indeed, there is uncleanness in us. There is all manner of sin. There is plenty to be ashamed of. But it is freedom, too, free will, which enables us to accept the mercy of Jesus Christ. It is freedom, finally, which enables all of us to love.

When our hearts are made free in Christ, then we find that all life is sanctified. Common things can be made holy. Ordinary things can be made clean, not by saying the right prayers over them or by washing our hands in the proper way but by seeing those common events and ordinary people in a new way. That new way is through the eyes of Jesus Christ. Jesus freely accepted the outcast, the lonely, the unclean, even the guilty. He accepted the common things and broken things of this world, which is why he accepts us.
Our Lord was not afraid of what went into him. He was not afraid to get dirty, to brush against and touch the unclean things of this world. Paradoxically, that’s what made him holy.

It is not, then, what goes into us that defiles us. And it is not what goes into us that makes us holy either. It is what comes out of us. Do hypocrisy and obsessed religious practice come out of us? Or, do freedom and genuine love for others come out?

Let us strive not to escape defilement and uncleanness but to touch the unclean and broken in ourselves and others with the freedom and love of Jesus Christ. Then we shall be holy indeed.

It is the first Sunday of the month. For many of our congregations, that means it is Communion Sunday. And when we come to the Lord’s Table, we come not because we’ve earned it. Not because we deserve it. No, if it were up to us, there would be no place for any of us here. But we come because it is a gift. We come because we want to be transformed. Because there is something within us that needs to be cleansed. So we come, asking God to take our hearts…, to take and seal them. Our Lord invites all of us to come despite our sins, telling us to lay it all on the table. And when you hear that invitation, you don’t need to try to wash your hands in advance. Just come with your clean and grateful heart. Amen.

Let us pray:
God, out of the human heart comes fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly, not to mention insidious prejudice. Ritual cleansing cannot touch them, O Lord, but you can. Inspire us to name our sin and then confess you, because yes, our sin is real, but so is your resurrection. Our sin is doomed. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and by your Spirit bring us alive in our belovedness, alive to each other, alive in you. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.


Image: The Pharisees Question Jesus (Les pharisiens questionnent Jésus) by James Tissot, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

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